Understanding Pet Food Labels

Did you ever feel bemused by terms such as ‘crude ash’ or ‘cereals’ listed on dog food packs? Without understanding such language, it becomes difficult to know the actual ingredients in your dog’s meal. As a solution, we’ve compiled a list of these commonly perplexing terms often observed on pet food containers. This will enable you to understand better what constituents you’re genuinely feeding your pet.

Related read: How to Choose the Right Food for Your Dog

Legal Definitions / Ingredients Complete: This means that the product contains the full list of nutrients essential to your dog’s dietary requirements. Don’t be fooled by adjectives like ‘premium’ or ‘gourmet’ on dog foods, they are only used to make you think the food is in some way more special than the others. It’s just a marketing technique used with no legal definition behind it; they are no legal indication of the product’s quality.

Complementary: This means that the food does not contain the full amount of essential nutrients for your dog and needs other foods added for a balanced diet.

Composition: The list of ingredients in order of descending weight.

Want to learn more? Read: An Introduction to a Dog’s Diet

Meat and animal derivatives: These come from animals that have been passed as fit for human consumption. These are typically parts of the animal that are not used in the human food industry.

Crude Ash / Inorganic matter / Incinerated residue: While these terms might appear vague and ambiguous they are all synonymous phrases that refer to the mineral content found in the product after a sample has been burnt to determine it.

Various sugars: Describes the different types of sugar found in the product such as sugar cane, fructose, and glucose which are all found in fruit, vegetables, and cereals (see cereals below).

Cereals: A blanket term for different types of grains that may be present in pet food. This definition makes it hard to know exactly what types of grains are in the food or their quality. Some dog foods substitute cereals for fruit and vegetables which is generally more beneficial for a dog. Although that isn’t to say that all grains are bad for dogs; when used incorrectly, in high-quality amounts they are also very beneficial. It’s just that most dog food labels are unspecific about the cereals so it’s impossible to tell.

Artificial Colourings: These have no health benefits whatsoever; they’re used to make food look appealing.

Artificial Flavourings: Ask yourself, can the product really be that good if it needs artificial flavours to be added before it tastes good?

Artificial Preservatives and Antioxidants: Antioxidants are used to give dog foods longer shelf life. To do this, it is far cheaper for dog food manufacturers to use synthetic (artificial) antioxidants rather than natural ones. There are three main synthetic antioxidants used in dog foods:

  • E320 (BHA – Butylatedhydroyanilose)
  • E321 (BHT – Butylatedhydroyutoluen)
  • E324 (Ethoxyquin)

While these work very effectively as preservatives, they have been linked to major health problems (such as cancer) when consumed in quantity. Healthier alternatives known as Tocopherols (Vitamin C and Vitamin E) are just as effective as preservatives and are usually derived from vegetable oil. Go natural; stay away from chemical preservatives.

Open and Closed Formulas: Like most information on dog food labels, formulas can be confusing. Understanding the different types of Formula means you can make a more informed choice for your dog.

Open Formulas: This means that the recipe to which the dog food is made is left open, meaning that the main ingredients can be subject to change depending on their availability or, more commonly, their cost. As open formula dog foods can change at any time, it means that your dog might not tolerate the new ingredients present in the food. It is not uncommon for individual dogs not to tolerate a certain type of protein found in a certain kind of ingredient.

Closed Formulas: These formulas are always made to the same recipe and don’t change. This is clearly much better for your dog as you know what they are getting every time (if you’ve read this guide).

Additional Tips

  • As well as checking labels check your dog to see what food works or doesn’t work for them.
  • Vary your dog’s meals; you don’t eat the same thing every day, so why should your dog?
  • Buy British. As much as possible, buy food made in the UK from ingredients sourced in the UK.

So You Think You Know What’s In Your Dog’s Food?

The other day I was browsing in the pet food aisle in the supermarket and came across a dry dog food containing over 60% cereal – the meat was the third ingredient on the label; furthermore, this food garnered a fair bit of its protein from vegetable fibres. I’m failing to see how that’s a good thing.

Go to the kitchen cupboard and get your current packet, pouch or can down and take a good look at what you bought. Ask yourself: what made you buy this brand? Word of mouth? Did the vet tell you to feed it because it was ‘bland and shouldn’t cause any issues? Was it super-expensive? Does it have the kind of packaging design to make it look as if it’s been lovingly hand-baked by the ladies at the WI?

Right, take a look at the front of the packet. Is there a photo of a cute, vital and energetic dog ‘enjoying life to the full’ in a sunny meadow on the front? I bet it says something like ‘food your dog will love you for’ and ‘using only natural ingredients, ‘no artificial additives etc. And this may well be the case. But that’s all hype and sales pitch. The real story is on the back. That’s where you find what you’re looking for—the list of ingredients.

Also try: 5 Reasons Broth is Healthy for Dogs

So, let’s not believe the hype; let’s learn to read a label. What you need to be able to do is translate and understand that ingredients list. When you can do that, when you know what those ingredients mean and how they apply to your dog and his diet, you will have the power to sally forth into your local or online pet shop (because you’ll never want to get your food anywhere else in future) and demand the best food out there, because you will know what you’re looking for. No more ‘various sugars’ for you, oh no!

The Mysterious Language of Ingredients Lists

Food labelling laws state that ‘all ingredients must be listed in order of weight, with the main ingredient listed first—rabbit, chicken, peas, swede, carrots, cranberry, seaweed, for example. You also have to show the percentage of an ingredient if it is ‘highlighted by the labelling or a picture on a package’. So ‘chicken and turkey casserole’ on the front of the label should read chicken 45%, turkey 15% on the ingredients list.

Beyond that, food can be listed on labels in two ways – either as a single ingredient, e.g. ‘chicken’, or as a category, e.g. ‘meat and animal derivatives. If you list an ingredient as chicken, it can only be the flesh and a little bone. It cannot be tendon or skin, for example. The same goes for ‘chicken meal’, which may be reconstituted, but which must once have been chicken flesh.

If the label states ‘meat and animal derivatives (min 4% chicken)’ and the meat content is 26% overall, you won’t know the remaining 22%. It can be beef, pork, lamb or a combination of all three. The term ‘meat and animal derivatives’ allows pet food producers to use the flesh and ‘all products and derivatives of the processing of the carcass or parts of the carcass’ over which you have no control.

They list ingredients this way because it gives them more flexibility and enables them to buy the cheapest ingredients at any given moment. If they’re getting pork £1 a tonne cheaper than beef that week, they’re going to use it. Margins are tight.

It’s no different for cereals or vegetables. If the label states ‘rice’, it must be rice, not rice husks. The same goes for ‘wheat’: it cannot be wheat husks. If, however, the label states ‘cereals’ as a category, the food can contain wheat, maize, rice, wheat gluten and wheat feed (husks) in any combination. No good if you’re trying to keep your dog off wheat.

Vegetables will either read ‘carrot, broccoli, pea’, in which case they must be just that and not a by-product such as a husk or ‘derivatives of vegetable origin’, which can be a mixture of many vegetables and their by-products (i.e. what’s left after the good stuff’s been syphoned off for use in something else). So, again, you won’t know what you’re getting.

The category ‘various sugars’, by the way, means ‘all types of sugar’, literally.

Related read: Healthy, No Sugar Easter Egg Recipe for Your Top Dog

As I say, category labelling can cause problems for the owner whose dog has difficulty digesting certain ingredients. Many dogs don’t get on well with beef; for example, research is starting to show that dogs exposed to the same protein repeatedly over the years could cause intolerance to it. The only way you can control the ingredients your dog eats is by selecting food that lists ingredients individually.

With That in Mind…

However you cut it, we, the customers, drive the pet food market. If we want to keep the cost of feeding Fido down and prices of raw materials and energy continue to rise, ultimately, the things that have to give are ingredients and recipe quality.

The quantity of meat meals and cereals that companies like Mars and Nestlé Purina consume is vast, and it is not always possible for them to obtain consistent quality at a consistent price. This means three things: they compromise on quality, they put the price up, or they amend the recipe (or a combination of all three).

The good thing about premium foods is that they usually declare ingredients individually, so there’s less scope for recipe adaptation. But then you are paying more for them.

The truth is that until we’re happy to pay a higher price, more often, for better food, the status quo will prevail. I wouldn’t say that the pet food industry has been complicit in harming pets’ health through greed or negligence, but the industry that has developed probably isn’t sustainable in the future. Nobody wants to make the first move and put the price of standard dog foods up by 50%, which is what probably needs to happen to get back to better nutrition.